“There will be signs” | December 2 | Advent 1

Texts: Luke 21:25-36; Jeremiah 33:14-16

1963 was the 100 year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.  The Civil Rights movement was in full swing.  That year King wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  President Kennedy addressed the nation about why he sent the National Guard to help protect two black students at the University of Alabama.  There was the March on Washington with its “I have a dream speech,” the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham killing four black girls.  President Kennedy was assassinated.  And, in 1963, African American writer James Baldwin wrote an essay, addressed to his 15 year old nephew, trying to explain why so many white folks were responding to all this with such fear.

To his teenage nephew, coming of age in this world, Baldwin writes this:

 “Try to imagine how you would feel, if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.”  — from The Fire Next Time.

I don’t know if James Baldwin had Luke’s gospel open as he wrote, but his words echo those of Jesus.

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”  Luke 21:25-26

Jesus speaks these words having just been in the temple – that solid, fixed star in the life of his beloved people.  The place where the symbols of cosmic meaning were etched in stone, enacted through ritual.  Where earth touched heaven.

Luke is almost certainly writing his gospel after 70CE, the year the Romans destroyed the temple.   These words of Jesus speak into this time of disorientation and upheaval.  “Not one stone left upon another,” Jesus had said earlier.  “The powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

When what you thought was solid and fixed moves out of place, then what?  When the unshakeable is shaken, where does that leave you and your little life?


2018 is not yet over, but on the church calendar, this is day one of a new liturgical year.  Without fail, I’m always a bit taken aback that these are the words and images to begin Advent.  They are startling, especially when one is expecting tidings of comfort and joy.  I’m yet to see a Hallmark card with the greeting: “May your season be filled with fear and foreboding for what is coming upon the world”…flip to the inside…”for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”  If you’re still looking for a tagline for your family holiday cards, it’s not too late.

How to greet these words that beckon us into this new season?  Especially when they sound eerily close to summarizing the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Is this a meltdown?  An unravelling?

A shake up?  A shakedown?

A crash?  A market correction?

Jesus’ words are by no means a direct forecast of our present predicament, but apparently there are some common themes that connect 70CE, 1963, and 2018CE: Disorientation, loss, grief, confusion, fear.  Solid things coming undone.  Has there ever been a year free from these realities?  A month?  A day?


The turbulence gets all the press, but there’s more going on here.  Look closer, for a storyline that takes a lot more careful attention to notice.  Breathe.  Pay attention.

Luke 21:27: “Then they will see the Human One coming in a cloud with power.”

They’re the words of Jesus, but the imagery is borrowed.  Daniel had been the first to imagine this. Daniel, as in Daniel and the Lion’s den.  Daniel the interpreter of dreams.  The dreams of bewildered emperors seeking council.  Daniel who himself became a dreamer.  Who, one night, dreamed of horrible beasts destroying and conquering and taking their stand as rulers of the earth – each one corresponding to an empire that had harassed and oppressed his people.  Babylon, Persia, Greece.  Daniel who said I have a dream that one day, despite these beasts of empire, one day a Human One will come as if on the clouds, and rule humanly, such that all humanity and all creation will thrive and flourish.

Jesus evokes Daniel’s dream, and follows it up by saying, “Now when you see these things take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Redemption.  Healing.  Wholeness.  A proclamation of emancipation.  Making right what has gone wrong.  If that’s what’s coming upon us, it’s worth paying attention.  But where to look amidst the rubble of late capitalism and post-industrial data-driven society?  What does redemption sound like?  Taste like?  If redemption had a smell, how would it fill the air?


“There will be signs.”  That’s how Jesus introduces this whole sequence.  “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth.”

It’s a good thing he included that last bit about “on the earth.”  The sun, moon, and stars are out there, a whole other scale.  But we live on the earth.  We walk on the earth.  If there are going to be signs, we need some earth bound signs.  Signs that might show up on a daily walk around the block.  Signs that might come out in conversation with a neighbor.  Signs that might show up at home, doing the kind of work that keeps a home going.  Signs that speak our language, or at least live in the neighborhood.

And here’s a glimpse of what that might be:  The primary sign Jesus points to is “the fig tree and all the trees.”  This affirms a conclusion I too have reached in my adult years.  When in doubt, consult with a tree.  They’ll tell you what you need to know.  Even the prophet Jeremiah, when speaking of a redemption yet to come, can’t help but reference a tree: “I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and it/he/she shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” (Jer 34:15)

This is how Luke tells it: “Then Jesus told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.  So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kin-dom of God is near.’”

“These things” seems to be referring to the disorientation, loss, confusion, and fear already mentioned.  But now there’s more going on, if you’re willing to pay attention.  “These things,” these signs, also point to the message of the trees, who were here long before us, and have been faithfully providing for us ever since we dismounted from their righteous branches and started walking around this wondrous earth, seeing what we could do with flint and fire, iron and oil.

When the tree shows the slightest sprouting of green, it’s a sign.  Something is growing.  Summer is coming.  That’s a sign even children can read.  You don’t have to be able to read to notice that sign.  We’re skilled at noticing signs of things falling apart.  It takes a particular way of seeing to notice signs of summer, signs that point to the coming of the Human One.  Signs that say “Redemption is near at hand.”


Our theme this Advent is “Do you sense what I sense?”  We’ll be using all our senses to pay attention.  Since Advent moves us toward the birth of Jesus, a baby born in a small village to an insignificant couple, it’s OK to think small.  It’s OK if the taste of something delightful around the table is a small sign that there is indeed cause for delight.  Or if the smell of something in the air is the smallest sign that you share breath with all the creatures of this world.  We’re not trying to shake the heavens and move the foundations of the cosmos here.  That’s already underway.  We know all about that.  That’s what so often causes us to shut down our senses.  Hunker down.  Guard our brains against the onslaught.  And that’s OK too.  These are fearful times.  We must take care of ourselves.

And as we take care of ourselves, we will open our senses to the message of the trees.  The slightest greenery, the smallest bud, the babe in Bethlehem — a sign.  Can you see it?  Do you hear it?  If someone served it to you, would you let yourself taste and enjoy it?  Savor it on your tongue and feel it slide warm down your throat.  Know that it will find its way into your blood and stream through your body, each cell renewed for another day.

I sense fear and foreboding giving way to calm delight.  I can’t guarantee the outcome, but I can smell it brewing.  It’s a season when we must trust the senses of children whose joy is itself a sign.  Calling all nephews, nieces, grandchildren, Mary’s child amidst the animals – to point us toward redemption.

James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew suggests that what is fearful news for some – the crumbling of things that held up the universe – is liberating news for others – the shaking loose of the old order.  The possibility of something new coming into being right in front of our eyes.

So it is with the entry of Jesus into this world.

“Now when you see these things take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”













“Not far from the kin-dom of God” OR Margaret Unchained


Texts: Acts 12:6-11; Mark 12:28-34

If you’re like me, you didn’t grow up observing All Saints or All Souls Day, or even know it was a thing.  Either way, each of us have likely accumulated a few saints over the years.  These are the people, living and dead, who exemplify a life well lived.  We hear their stories and we want to know more.  We don’t need them to be perfect, but we need them to show us something.  Something of love, something of courage, something of God.  Knowing their stories shapes our own. We need these stories = these lives who were, in the words of Jesus, “not far from kin-dom of God.”  They help us see that the kin-dom of God can indeed be not far away.

Hebrews chapter 11 walks through a whole ensemble of characters from the Hebrew Bible – From Adam and Eve’s son Abel, to Abraham and Moses, to Rahab, to the prophets.  It follows this up by saying, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race set out for us.”

Observance of All Saints and All Souls, in our own Protestant way, reminds us of that great cloud of witnesses.  Even though the question “Who’s in your cloud?” sounds like a tagline for a tech company, it would make for an interesting exercise for each of us to do some cloud mapping and compare clouds.  “Who’s in your cloud?”

I like to focus this first Sunday in November on someone from our Anabaptist/Mennonite cloud of witnesses.  I’m guessing our Anabaptist-of-the-year this time around is an unknown.  I hadn’t heard of her until Paula Snyder Belousek, who pastors Salem Mennonite Church in Elida, Ohio, brought her up at a monthly CDC pastors meeting a little while back.  Margaret Hellwart of Beutelsbach.  Anyone ever heard of Margaret?  Paula said she often tells her story to youth considering baptism.  After today, Margaret Hellwart will be an official member of the CMC cloud of witnesses.

I want to get into her story by way of this week’s gospel lectionary, from Mark 12.  That’s where we hear that line from Jesus, “you are not far from the kin-dom of God.”  If you were a part of the congregation in 2014 you might recall this passage was one in our Twelve Scriptures Project – when together we selected the Twelve Scriptures that most inform our faith.  These twelve scriptures are still preserved in the colorful installation in the foyer over the bench.  This passage from Mark got the most votes.  So, had it been a one scripture project, this would have been it.

It’s absolutely central because it involves Jesus being asked about what he considers to be central.  A scribe, a member of the elite educated class, approaches Jesus with this question: “Which commandment is the first of all?”  When you boil it all down, Jesus, what’s it all about?

Jesus frequently responded to questions by posing a better question.  But there’s not much to improve on with this one, and Jesus has a direct answer.  He combines a passage from Deuteronomy and one from Leviticus.  To paraphrase: “Love God with all your being, with all you are, your heart, soul, mind, strength,” and “Love your neighbor as if they were you and you were them.”  When you boil it all down, it’s about love of God and love of neighbor, and when you boil that down, it’s God who is the Source of all love, continually flowing to us, that enables us to love in the first place.

That’s it.  That’s what’s first of all.  That’s the center.  That’s what most matters.

In the gospels, scribes are mostly portrayed as opposed to Jesus, but this one receives Jesus’s response with gratitude, and adds his own commentary.  He agrees with Jesus’ distillation of all the teachings and all the commandments: love of God, love of neighbor.  The scribe then adds his own two cents: “this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

The scribe highlights a tension that runs through all religion.  There are the ethical teachings about how we treat one another, and there are the ritual practices.  Love your neighbor – ethics, morals, the relational part of how we live, kindness, mercy, and justice and peace – and the ritual part – perform the burnt offerings, observe the annual holy days, attend church, sing the hymns, take Communion, etc.  These two don’t need to be in tension, but without a deep rootedness in the love of God, ritual easily becomes ritualism, habits of religion can easily dull rather than heighten our senses to what really matters.  To this insight, Jesus tells the scribe: “You are not far from the kin-dom of God.”

This is where Margaret Hellwart comes in.  Because Margaret first became known publicly through her conscientious objection to the ritual parts of the dominant religion of her time.  To put it in more plain language, she got in trouble because she stopped going to church.  Quite a role model for all of us.  But stick with me.

Margaret lived in the village of Beutelsbach.  This is in present day southern Germany, close to Stutthgart.  In the sixteenth century it was in the circle of influence of the Swiss Brethren movement of Anabaptism.  This is the group of Anabaptists who did the first ana-baptizing on record – re-baptizing.  Or, as they believed, their first true baptism in consciously choosing to follow Jesus.  That was January, 1525.

Their teachings on the need for an authentic inner faith appealed especially to those who had little power within the current economic and religious establishment.  There was a renewed emphasis on the teachings of scripture, and the leading of the Spirit.  They rejected the use of violence, the sword, within the church.

Many women found an opening in Anabaptism to exercise their own authority outside the rigid male dominated hierarchy of the state church.

Men and women were martyred for their deviant teachings.  Anabaptism was a far cry from feminism, but it did threaten social harmony organized around patriarchy.

Margaret Hellwart was not a martyr, so there are no images of her in the Martyr’s Mirror.  She was born in 1568, about two generations after those first re-baptisms.  We know hardly anything about her until 1608, when she was 40.  By that time the Swiss Anabaptist movement had been scattered due to persecution.  The heaviest persecution had passed, but Anabaptists were still considered suspect.  Because they believed the church should reflect the life of Jesus, the Anabaptists around Margaret would often skip Sunday worship and Communion at the local Lutheran parish, which they saw as being full of unregenerate people.  Instead, they would meet in homes and a nearby wood to teach one another the scriptures, pray, and sing.  This was actually the primary way of identifying Anabaptists.  Look at the church attendance roles and figure out who in town wasn’t showing up on Sunday.

So, in the spring of 1608, we have our first public record of Margaret.  Her name appears in a report by the Lutheran General Superintendent to the Synod.  They note she’d been warned several times before to attend church and the Lord’s Supper sacrament, but she wasn’t complying.

Margaret had come to same conclusion as the scribe who spoke with Jesus in the temple.  A life defined by love was of greater value than simply going through the rituals.

By the way, if you’re visiting today and you’re Lutheran, we love you, and we’re grateful we’ve had plenty of time over the centuries to work on our relationship.  Just be sure to sign the attendance pads when they’re passed around during the offering so we know you’re in church.

A local ordinance in Stuttgart made specific reference to a group of very energetic Anabaptist women in the area.  Interestingly, most of their husbands weren’t Anabaptists.  An initial policy was to exile these women from the region, but the families couldn’t cope without the wives/mothers present, and the public expense to help care for their families became too heavy.

So we don’t want these women getting out of line and causing things to not hold together, but we really need them…in order to hold things together.

So the authorities came up with a new plan.  They would no longer exile these women.  Instead, they would chain them to the floors of their houses.  The chains would be long enough that they could move about and do domestic type things – cook, and care for children – but they couldn’t leave the house and be in conversation with other Anabaptists.  I’m guessing the guy who suggested this in the committee meeting was given a promotion.

Margaret was the most prominent of these Anabaptist female leaders.  She had two years to avoid the fate of the chain.  She was called before the Consistory, the church court, in 1608 and 1609, each time interrogated about her faith and practice, each time ordered to attend the local parish.  Each time letting them know in no uncertain terms she had no intention of obeying the orders.

The main source I’m drawing from, called Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth Century Reforming Pioneers says this: “Margaret Hellwart appears to have been unusually gifted with self-confidence.”  One piece of evidence for this was at a later trial, after she’d been chained for six years, it was reported that Margaret had a mocking smile on her face.  Because, you know, any sign of self-confidence is surely a mockery to authority.

Perhaps a reason for Margaret’s confidence is that between the years 1610 and 1621, that’s eleven years of house arrest, records show she escaped no fewer than 21 times.  Margaret is the Great Houdini of Anabaptism.  Each time they found her, they would re-assemble the chain around her ankle, and each time she’d find a way out, visiting mostly with other women in the community, speaking to them about the faith.  In one instance, there’s an account of the church superintendent and mayor coming to her house unannounced.  After knocking on the door, Margaret didn’t answer right away.  But they could hear what sounded like her moving through the house and then putting her chains back on before she opened the door.

How many others throughout history, women and men, have had to give the impression of being chained, when they are in fact free in mind, soul, and body?

One of the scriptures Margaret would share, when she was out and about, was the passage we read from Acts chapter 12 – the story of Peter being freed by an angel from his chains in prison, and going out to the other believers to give them encouragement.

It’s unfortunate we don’t know more about Margaret Hellwart.  We have these records, and we have just a few testimonies about her from others.  This is how the Profiles book summarizes the testimony about her faith: “God has commanded that people should love one another.  Any who live as a Christian are by that fact alone a member of the church.”  A friend of Margaret’s named Katharina Koch testified that she didn’t need to attend church because Margaret Hellwart taught her all she needed to know.

These are testimonies from a time when the institutions of the day were utterly failing their people.  The structures had become so caught up in preserving their own existence, they had forgotten their initial reason for being.  Teacher, which commandment is greatest of all?

We claim Anabaptism as our lineage because Margaret and others rediscovered what is greatest of all.  The psychologist James Finley has said: “Love protects us from nothing, even as it unexplainably sustains us in all things.” James Finley, Intimacy: The Divine Ambush, disc 3 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013)

Considering Margaret’s story makes me think of today’s #MeToo movement.

It is a gift to be living in a time when Margarets are becoming unchained and telling their truth to their sisters and brothers.  Aided by angels, allies, and tremendous courage, Margaret is speaking.  The institutions that prefer her chained are scrambling to do damage control.  We are witnesses to the Spirit at work through her, and we sense that the kin-dom of God has come a bit nearer.

Margaret lived out her life in her home community.  Court records of her end when she was in her early 50’s, meaning either she died then, or the authorities gave up bringing her to trial.  Historian’s best guess is that she buried in an unmarked grave on unconsecrated ground in Beutelsbach.  We consecrate her story today by lighting a candle in her honor.




Self: A widening circle | September 30

Texts: Leviticus 19:18,34; March 8:34-37; Galatians 2:19-20

After four months, we’re at the end of this theme.  That’s a long theme.  We’ve been listening for how we’re Called In to different parts of life.  Called in to the World.  To our City.  How we’re called in to this Congregation and how this congregation calls us in.

And, Self.  Called to be our deepest, truest selves.  Which is another way of talking about how the Spirit wakens us to our participation in the life of God.  Which is love.  Which is life leading to more life.  We’ve got these spheres, these widening circles, where self is both the smallest one, and the one that can transcend all the others.

Thomas Merton calls this “the most important of all voyages.”

This is what he wrote:

What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous. ( “The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century”, p.11.)

Thomas Merton talks about the abyss that separates us from ourselves, but, paradoxically, one of the things about our Selves, is that it’s the one thing we can’t escape.  You can take a break from a congregation, switch to another, or quit church altogether.  You can move out of the city.  You can go on a retreat from the World, at least temporarily withdraw from the systems that order one’s days.

But wherever we go, we still have to live with our selves.  We can’t just change addresses and leave behind our thoughts, our experiences, our wounds, our addictions, our radiance, the stories others have told us about who we are, the stories we tell ourselves.

These are all the pieces floating around in our heads, coded in our relationships, that we experience as our self.  It’s quite a stew.

So here we all are, sitting here with our selves.

Now, as everyone knows, whenever one needs a definitive word on something, one goes to the biblical book of Leviticus.

Leviticus chapter 19 contains a rather generous view of the self.  Verse 18 was made all the more prominent when Jesus highlighted it as part of the Greatest Commandment.  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  A little later in the same chapter is a less familiar saying that takes this even further.  It follows that same pattern.

“The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

These passages carry a certain assumption about the self – and I would call it a generous assumption.  In the ancient world “love” is used just as much as a statement of loyalty as it is a statement of affection.  To love your king or your master was to be loyal to them, to follow through on one’s obligations toward them, to defend their honor.

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  “You shall love the stranger as yourself.”  These statements in Leviticus take for granted the loyalty and commitment one has toward oneself, and then use that as a reference point for how one ought to treat not just the neighbor, but the stranger, the outsider.

And the self is not just some independent isolated figure, but a self-in-community, formed by a particular way of remembering.  Over and over the ancient Israelites are instructed to remember that they were once strangers and foreigners and slaves in the land of Egypt.  This is not just a past experience, but a present part of one’s being.  Part of one’s story, one’s self.  The Holy One liberated them, and they now are to work for the liberation of all people because they know in their very being what it’s like to be a stranger.

This is the beautiful possibility of self about which Leviticus speaks.  Without this sturdy sense of self, the commandments begin to falter.

So…It’s a good thing we always have this sturdy, God-infused sense of self, Right?  We know how to be loyal, and true, and loving toward ourselves, Right?  How wonderful that we are absolutely at peace with ourselves as beloved children of God.  And so it naturally follows that our selves are overflowing with generosity and loving-kindness toward neighbors and those different than us.


From his Trappist Monastery in Kentucky, in the middle of the 20th century, in the heat of Cold War madness, with the world on the brink of nuclear suicide, Thomas Merton writes:

What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous.

It’s a phrase with echoes of Jesus’ words to the crowds following him: “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”  That word for life is psuche and can also mean soul, or self.  It’s where we get our word psyche and psychology.

What good is it to gain the whole world, but lose your psyche, your self, in the process?

One of the most intriguing notions of Self I’ve come across recently comes out of a branch of psychology called Internal Family Systems.  This approach sees each person as made up of many different parts, like a family.  Each part has a story, even a personality.  Parts express themselves in relationship to the other parts.  The work of internal family systems includes starting to see and name those parts, those internal family members, be in conversation with them, and help them be flexible and gracious toward each other rather than rigid and domineering.

So, for example, one might discover that one has an anxious child in there, nervous about being accepted in the world.  But this child may not ever be allowed to grow up because of the goal driven Achiever who strives for success at all costs.  The Achiever may be in conflict with the gentle grandmother in there who feels she must always put other people’s needs before hers.  And she might be resentful of the Free-Spirited young adult in there who wants nothing more than to drink in all the beauty of the world.  These, and many more, all in one person.

As therapists were encouraging people to describe their internal family, they began to wonder who was the voice of the client that was able to so accurately and even compassionately name and describe these parts.  They came to call this voice the Self.  And after listening to many, many clients, a clear and consistent picture of the Self emerged.

The Self is the observer of the family, and has the ability to be the leader.  It has inherent wisdom.  It is born whole and doesn’t need to go through stages of development.  It’s so vitally important that when the parts feel that the Self is being threatened, they try to protect it, hide it away and take charge.  But this never works.  The parts think they’re helping, but they’re throwing the whole family out of balance, sending some into exile, losing touch with the Self’s ability to lead and harmonize the parts.  It’s easy for the person to begin believing that they are the anxious child, or the win- at- all- costs achiever.

And so the work becomes enabling these anxious parts to again trust the Self.  To find a way to give voice, for example, to the young adult-ish free spirited one inside, and when the individual begins to feel resentful or anxious about their voice, to have the Self realize which part is feeling this, and give them room to share their bit.

The more each part is listened to with a genuine curiosity, which is exactly what the Self naturally does, the more they relax into a harmonized and even playful relationship with the other parts.

It’s not just that simple, but that’s the basic gist of how Internal Family Systems approaches the inner life, and how it views the Self.

To make the leap back into traditional Christian language, this way of viewing the Self has parallels with the Apostle Paul’s teachings of Christ in us.  One place this shows up is in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  He writes, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”  So who is the I who is able to talk about this other I who has undergone this death and resurrection?  Paul hasn’t died physically, but he has undergone a kind of death in which a new self has been raised up.  Or a Self that was there all along.  What we might call his true self.  His deepest self.  Or just, his Self.  His self which is now able to see his life and others with compassion and grace.  A self he joyfully identifies as “Christ who lives in me.”

This Self, this Christ in me, is still the same person.  It still has all the quirky and odd things that makes one who one is.  One is still fully in one’s body, one’s family, internal and external.  But one begins to see that who one is is a member of the Christ, a participant in the Divine life.  A small, mortal human and a Self that encompasses all the other widening circles.  This Christ who lives in me, this not I, but Christ, who is my true I, is what allows all of those parts of us to relax and begin to learn a way of living together in peace.  Peace with each other, and peace with other others.  This is our baptismal identity, a gift from God.

Then, the commandments start to fulfill themselves.  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  You shall love the stranger as yourself.”  The Christ in me recognizes the Christ in you.

This is the most difficult of all journeys, but, if we are to take Thomas Merton at his word, it is the most important.  It is ultimately not just our journey, but the journey Christ makes with us.








City/Garden | September 16

Texts: Jeremiah 29:1-7; Revelation 21: 9-14, 22-25

It’s been observed that the Bible begins in a garden and ends in a city.

If you want to get a little more technical, the Bible begins in the formless and void, and ends with a warning that if anyone changes any of the words in the book of Revelation that God will bring on them the plagues so vividly described within.

But if we’re willing to treat the first chapter of Genesis as something of an introduction, and if we’re willing to bracket the very end of Revelation as a bit of first century copyright language, theologically aggressive as it may be…and if we set aside that rather than being like a single book, the Bible is more like a library of books, representing a tradition that evolves over a period of several thousand years, now bound together under one cover that we might consider how we carry forward this evolving tradition in our time…If we can go with those parameters, then the Bible does indeed begin in a garden, and end in a city.

From garden to city does make for an intriguing narrative arc.

The garden, of course, is the Garden of Eden, which shows up in Genesis chapter two.  Scholars have identified this as a second, and likely more ancient, creation story, told after the quite different seven day creation story that begins with the earth being formless and void.  Genesis 1 is more cosmic in scale, with humanity not showing up until day six when they are created in the image of God. Genesis 2 focuses on the human being, formed from the dust of the ground, taking their place in a garden. The Garden of Eden.  The human’s role is to till and to keep the garden.  The first job description for the human endeavor is that of gardener.  As a labor saving device, the Creator Yahweh Elohim, has included lots of perennials in this garden, fruit bearing trees, from which humanity may eat, including the Tree of Life.

There is one off limits, and of course the curious humans eventually have to have a taste of it.  The tree of knowledge.  And once you know, you can’t unknow what you know.  There’s no going back.  As the story goes, this leads to exile from the garden.  Humanity will be fruitful and multiply as originally commanded, they will continue to till the ground, but it will take place outside this original gifted garden.  Angelic guardians with flashing swords are placed at the entrance of the Garden of Eden, protecting the way to the Tree of Life.  This dust creature called “human,” this god-image bearer, this knowledge laden creature, will need to find its way in this world beyond Eden.

So the biblical narrative begins.

And where it ends, in that final and fantastical book of the biblical library, Revelation – John’s vision, nightmare, heavenly dream, on the island of Patmos.  Where it ends, is a city.  As this vision draws to its climactic conclusion this is what John says:

“And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (Rev 21:2)  The worn out earth is renewed, not as a pristine garden, but as a city.

John goes into great detail, even about the dimensions of the city, as if he’s reading the city planning guidelines.  The walls, the gates, the construction materials consisting of various rare and precious stones.

The city takes on a cosmopolitan flare when John says, “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.  Its gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there.”

The city becomes the place where the Divine and the human finally live together in harmony.

Also in the city is the long lost tree of life, those angelic guards finally relieved of their duties.  The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

John envisions where the linear time of history flows into the ocean of eternity, where the heavens and the earth are renewed.  And it looks like a city, gates wide open, all peoples and cultures welcome, with a tree offering itself as a primary care physician, a healer.

In the biblical imagination, we live in between Eden and the New Jerusalem.  The garden the city.

This summer was actually the second Sabbatical I’ve had as a pastor.  The first was while we were with the Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship.  Much of that Sabbatical was spent back on the farm where I grew up, where my parents still live, an hour northwest of here in Bellefontaine.  The plan was pretty simple.  Have some unhurried time outside of the city, back to the farm, back to nature.  I would help with gardening and farm related work in the morning, and in the afternoon I’d go to a coffee shop and read lots of Wendell Berry, and other such writers.  Having free lodging was a strategic perk, paid in kind through free labor.

For a little over a month, this is what we did.  It was like the Bible in reverse.  A self-exile from the city, into the garden prepared for us by my earthly parents.

Not far into this time, it became apparent that the previous split, at least in my mind, between garden and city was a false one.

A garden, rather than a pure manifestation of nature, is a highly managed environment.  To till and keep a garden is to excerpt consciousness alongside the mysterious power of life.  To choose what grows and what gets pulled up.  To select the best of what has grown and plant its seeds for the coming year.  By careful and wise tilling and keeping, the gardener has the capacity to not only maintain a landscape, but to improve it, at least in our way of defining improvement – to increase diversity, and expand what is helpful, to hold back what is harmful.  To offer something even more abundant to the next generation, fully aware that what we now have to tend is an inheritance from previous generations.

To garden is to partner with the wonder and miracle of life and be so bold as to choose what grows and what doesn’t.  And sometimes, of course, despite best efforts, it just won’t grow.

A city is a highly managed environment.  Every part of it an eclectic mixture of human forethought and unintended consequences; cooperative design and individual will; environmental opportunities and limitations; necessity and excess; a constant interplay between human consciousness and other forces.  One generation’s creative impulse inherited by future generations to revise, remodel…or get trapped in cycles and structures as powerful and potentially destructive as a plague of locusts.

Perhaps the journey from garden to city is not such a long journey after all.  There is a powerful human element in both, a burden, or gift of responsibility.

On this Sabbatical Abbie and I spent a week in California, half of it at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.  We saw the largest tree in the world, the General Sherman.  We stayed in John Muir Lodge.

As we soon learned, John Muir is the patron saint of these parks.  He’s the Scottish immigrant to the US who explored and wrote eloquently about the natural beauty of the American West.  He founded the Sierra Club and strongly advocated for the creation of National Parks.

In hallways of the lodge there were color enhanced photos of the California Sierra landscape.  They looked like the kind of pictures that, in another setting, would have Bible verses under them.  A sunset over a mountain range: “And God saw that it was good.”  Towering sequoia trees: “For God so loved the world….” Or something like that.  You know what I’m talking about.  But instead of Bible verses, there were quotes from John Muir: “The mountains are calling, and I must go.”  “Between every two pines is a doorway into a new world.”  I have to say in this case I preferred the John Muir quotes.

But John Muir had a blind spot.  This I discovered after some further reading about him and the California Sierras.  When he saw the Sequoias and the great Yosemite Valley, he believed it to be nature in its pure form.  A wilderness planted only by the hand of God.  Like Eden before the humans got a hold of it.  He advocated that it be protected from human encroachment, which was becoming a major problem as settlers poured in from the east.  Thus the national parks.

What he failed to see was that this land was not untouched wilderness.  It was more of a garden, even a city of some kind.  Like other parts of the US, Native Americans had been managing these lands for millennia, especially through the strategic use of fire.  Over the generations it had become a park/garden/village for people who had partnered with life and God.

But rather than bearing the names of these people who had created a civilization among the trees, the largest tree in the world is now named after a US General who fought along the Western Frontier for the extermination of these Indians, thus protecting and conserving the wilderness lands.  I wish they had read Revelation which says the tree of life is for the healing of the nations.

Decades after the Indians were gone, the conservationists began complaining about the brush and wild growth overtaking their pristine parks.  Only recently are we coming to understand the importance of careful human partnership with the wildlife and plant life to maintain an environment in which all can thrive.

Ever since eating from the proverbial tree of knowledge we as a species have been applying our vast and often short sited knowledge to shape the world around us.  What gets to grow, what gets rooted out?  Who gets rooted out?  What do we build? What do we destroy?  It’s a rather terrifying and remarkable responsibility.  It’s the same kind of work we do every day on the soul level.  What gets to grow, what gets rooted out?  What do we build? What do we destroy?  What gets our attention?  Where do we direct our energy?  How might we partner with life and God to tend the miracle of our lives?

In Jeremiah 29, the prophet writes a letter to the exiles in Babylon.  They had been uprooted from Jerusalem, and were now in a foreign land, a great city.  His wise counsel points them toward a new life in the city/garden in which they find themselves.  They are to settle in.  To send down roots.  To plant urban gardens and tend them.  To have children, and grandchildren.  To seek the shalom, the welfare, the peace of the city.  Because their wellbeing was now tied up to the wellbeing of that city.  As they tend their lives, as they live as a community, they will partner with God and life in shaping something beautiful and sustaining for themselves and future generations.

Whether Columbus is your Babylon of exile or your familiar and beloved Jerusalem, it is the city/garden in which we now live.  In which the Creator seeks to create with you a community of shalom.  May we tend our lives well, so that we can tend to this place, these neighborhoods, our neighbors, these animals and trees around us.











First Sabbatical…from city to country. Same thing



World: Grief, Beauty | September 9

Mark 3:7-15; 19b-22; 31-35

 It’s the first week of Sabbatical, the morning of the first Wednesday of June.  Our family is up and out of bed.  The energy level is well above average for this time of day.  School is out, my email auto-reply is on, our bags are packed up, and we’re about to be off.  Our flight to Guatemala departs in just a few hours.  Among the many things on the pre-departure checklist was putting a hold on newspaper delivery, starting…tomorrow.  Might as well have something to read at the airport.

On our way out, I grab the paper off the front porch and open it for a sneak peek.  I’m not expecting much worth dwelling on.  But there on the front page of the Dispatch was something to dwell on:  A large image with the heading “Too much to bear.”  It was a picture of a grieving mother, in, of all places, Guatemala.  The caption noted that her name was Lilian Hernandez, and that 36 of her extended family members were presumed dead after the eruption of the Fuego volcano three days prior.

We’d known that the Volcan de Fuego, the Volcano of Fire as it’s called, in south-central Guatemala had erupted that Sunday.  It catches your eye when you’ve been planning a trip for months and the airport where you’re supposed to land gets shut down two days prior.  It had re-opened, and my thoughts had turned to whether we’d have to adjust our plans to visit nearby Antigua our first weekend there.  Then, as we’re heading out the door for our family adventure to start off the World-themed portion of the Sabbatical, a gentle invitation.  You want to encounter the World?  Here is the World.  Let a grieving mother be your tour guide.  Or, You want to encounter the World?  Here she is.  The World is s grieving mother.  After reading through the paper I recycled the pages, except for the front, which I still have.

There’s a story in Mark’s gospel where the mother of Jesus makes a rare appearance.  Although she’s not grieving in this one, at least not in any public way.    It’s in chapter three, early on, when Jesus is still emerging from obscurity.  He’s attracting crowds, what scripture often calls “a great multitude.”  He is healing and casting out harmful spirits.  He’s attracting students, a smaller group willing to set aside life as usual to follow him full time.  And he’s already attracting enemies.  Just like the rest of Mark’s narration style, it’s all happening rather quickly.

Now he’s home, and, as Mark says, “the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat.  When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’”

After some heated exchange with the local scribes, we’re told that Jesus’ family has arrived – his mother, and his siblings.  They’re standing outside.  They call for him.  Someone in the crowd speaks up to Jesus and says, “Your mother and brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.”

Jesus’ answer is one of those moments when we can almost feel the world shift beneath our feet.  He looks around at everyone in the room, all those people so up his face he can’t even catch a bite to eat.  “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asks, and proceeds to answer his own question…”Here are my mother, and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

We don’t know how Mary, the mother Jesus responds to this, how she hears these words from her son.  As usual, Mark moves on fast.  Right away Jesus is back outside, by the lake, or better, on the lake, teaching a crowd from a boat, spinning a parable about a farmer who flings seeds over every kind of soil and watches as some of them grow into a harvest 100 times what was planted.

The wideness of that parable, and the wideness of Jesus’ new definition of family is one of the primary themes of the gospels.  Healthy families care for one another, they grieve and rejoice with each other, they have a strong sense of inhabiting the same relational web, such that what happens to one member affects other members.  And here, Jesus proposes a notion of family that essentially encompasses all of humanity.  Who are my sisters and my brothers and mothers and fathers?  Here they are.  There they are.  Not bounded by biology or tribe or national boundaries.

It’s a big thought.  It’s a big world.

Mary goes to round up her family and is confronted with the idea that the other women and men in the room are now just as much a part of this new kind of extended family her son is rounding up.

You head out the door and make sure you have your whole family in tow.  You glance at the news and look in the face of a grieving woman you’ve never met before and hear the question: Who is my daughter, my sister, my mother?  Here she is.

This idea of a global family in which we are all siblings is quite a bit easier for us to imagine than Jesus’ original audience.  We can fly anywhere in the world in hours, communicate in seconds.  We have these amazing images taken from cameras that have broken free of the earth’s gravity, pointing back at our planet.  The pictures are, of course, void of national boundaries.  This is all now basic grade school curriculum.

What we’re still working out, is how to hold this reality, how to walk toward it and through it with sturdy compassion.  How to not be afraid.  How to not be overwhelmed.

There are tragedies reported every day, whether you get you news by paper or radio or some digital platform or combination thereof.  The scope and scale of it pretty quickly overwhelms our capacity to empathize deeply with every situation.  It is, as the June 6 Dispatch heading stated, “Too much to bear.”  For most of human history our grief has been confined to the losses among the relatively small collection of families with whom we shared life.  Now, on a planet of seven and a half billion people, we start off our days by checking in on the most tragic thing going.

How to hold this?  How to release this?  How to be in these times?  How to care and feel and remain grounded in one’s being?

In Guatemala we never met Lilian Hernandez, who had unknowingly made the front page news in Columbus, Ohio.  As the three weeks progressed we did learn more from the stories of these Guatemalan brothers and sisters, like sitting for a while on a branch of the family tree you’d only glanced at before. Seeing what the world looks like from that perch.  We climbed the massive Mayan pyramids of Tikal and learned that the civilizations’ fall over 1000 years ago was likely due to deforestation and drought, cutting down all their forests to fuel the fires to make the cement mixture to hold their towering structures together…a cautionary tale of empire.

We learned how the devastation from the Guatemalan Civil War from the 1960’s to the mid 90’s still impacts every aspect of Guatemalan society.  How our country’s CIA helped overthrow a democratically elected president in the 50’s whose land reform program looked too much like Communism and threatened the business interests of the US based United Fruit Company.  How our religion of Christianity was used alongside the genocidal policies of President Rios Montt in the 80’s.  We ate supper at the house of a North American family working for Mennonite Central Committee who had plenty to say about how displacement from ancestral land had everything to do with the fact that there were poor communities living at the base of an active volcano, their homes and family members now gone.  (Excellent essay by MCCer Jack Lesniewski HERE).  We heard from a pastor and professor who assured us that desperate Guatemalans will continue to immigrate to the US no matter how cruel they will be treated here.

The world is a grieving mother.

But there was another moment on the trip that captures a larger picture.  After that time in Guatemala Abbie flew back to Columbus with Lily an Ila.  Eve and I flew on to Colombia to visit with our sister congregation in Armenia, Comunidad Christiana Menonita de Paz.  

As we soon learned, the typical greeting was for men to shake hands, and for women to kiss on the cheek.  When a man and woman from the church greeted each other, it was often with a kiss on the cheek.  The longer we stayed, the more we were inducted into this practice.  One of the things I noticed was that when someone new joined the group, they would go around and greet everyone in this way.  Even if there were 10 or 20 people in the room.  People would stop what they were doing, and personally acknowledge the presence of the new person.  It was lovely to watch.

On the second day of our stay, we were eating lunch with a family who had invited another church family to the meal.  One of the last to come through the door was the teenage son of the visiting family.  He was, I must say, a remarkably handsome guy.  He looked like he could have played on the Colombian national soccer team, and World Cup was being played during our visit.  Amidst the other lively commotion in the room, he started making his rounds.  He came over and shook my head, then turned, and, to a still culturally-adjusting Eve, gave a gentle kiss on the cheek.  I would like to say that Eve smiled back, but I think she was a bit too stunned to respond.  She, by the way, has given me permission to tell this story.

The world is a grieving a mother, but it’s also a beautiful boy who, when we least expect it, greets us with a kiss on the cheek, as if to say, “I am here, and you are here, and that is a beautiful thing.”

Beauty surrounds and sustains us.  It elevates our spirits and inducts us into its family.  It’s what weaves its way through so much of our poetry, including the Psalms.  It’s what causes the writer of Psalm 8 to marvel at the magnitude of creation’s glory alongside their own smallness.  It’s what causes the writer of Psalm 19 to declare that creation continually pours out speech and knowledge for us to see and hear.  The writer of Psalm 139 has an overwhelming sense that they, like the world itself, are “wonderfully made.”  As if beauty, like grief, is sometimes “too much to bear.”

These must have been the eyes with which Jesus looked out across the great multitude.  Where some saw sickness, he saw a hidden wholeness.  Where some saw demons, he saw a beloved child of God.

If you can’t remember the last time you’ve been kissed on the face by the World or the Christ or someone you claim as family of whatever kind, perhaps it’s time for a Sabbatical.

Beauty, a hidden wholeness, beloved children of God.  The Mayans no longer live among the pyramids of Tikal, but they haven’t gone away.  About half of Guatemalans are indigenous, Mayans.  They continue to struggle, but they are finding their way.  Along Lake Atitlan we walked through the town of San Juan and visited a whole network of cooperatives, run by Mayan women.  Weaving, honey, coffee, herbal medicines, chocolate.  They are practicing an economics of beauty while caring for one another.  Buying their products was a joy.

Beauty, a hidden wholeness, beloved children of God.  We met briefly with Gilberto Flores who teaches at the seminary where we had our apartment in Guatemala City.  Gilberto was a pastor, and many years ago had baptized a young man named Rios Montt.  One Sunday in 1982, when Rios Montt was president of Guatemala, he visited the church Gilberto was pastoring, Casa Horeb, a place where we worshiped one Sunday.  The President was accompanied with a group of armed guards.  From the pulpit, Gilberto announced that these men were welcome in their congregation, but their guns were not, they’d have to leave them outside.  After the service Gilberto told Rios Montt directly that he must stop killing the poor.  It ended their relationship and led to a series of death threats.  Gilberto continues to be a minister of peace to this day, including having served many years as a leader within Mennonite Church USA.

Beauty, a hidden wholeness, beloved children of God.  On two of our weekend trips we got a closer look at Volcan de Fuego.  From a safe distance it was a marvel, still smoking, powerful and alive.

The poet Rilke sees his life unfolding in widening circles, including more, and more, and more of what is.


This is our world.  Grief and beauty.  They do not cancel each other out, but they travel together as we circle around God, around the primordial tower.  To live our lives in widening circles is to gain capacity for both.  We learn to behold beauty in such a way that it charges our senses with greater sensitivity to grief.  We learn to carry grief in such a way that it unlocks new realms of beauty.

This journey is traveled among family – the living and the dead.  It is ours to recognize that this is so, and to live with this good news.  We are being rounded up into this ever widening family that Christ is calling in.


“Widening Circles”

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

BY Rainer Maria Rilke Book of Hours, I 2

translation by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows

Called in, Part II | June 3

Texts: Mark 2:23-3:6

I’m not sure what to think of the fact that on the final day before a summer Sabbath from church life, the gospel lectionary is about Jesus misbehaving on the Sabbath.  It’s gotta be a sign.  Not so sure yet how it affects our Sabbatical itinerary.  Or maybe this has to do with your Sabbatical itinerary.  We’ll soon find out.

Having a clean, although temporary, break like this feels like a good time to do some reflecting on where we’ve been together.  It’s been five years now, almost exactly, since you called me to Columbus Mennonite.  It’s enough time to have a few stories.

As a continuation of last week’s sermon, this is Called In, Part II.  The idea of calling has a long and rich history.  Calling is something that beckons us in, to what some have simply referred to as the Great Work.  The Great Work lifts us out of our small ego selves and into the collective work of healing and justice and community.  It’s what Jews often call Tikkun Olam, The repair of the world.

Called in” is a phrase we’re borrowing from SURJ, Showing Up for Racial Justice.  It’s a bit of a play on words.  Anytime you have a group of people sharing life and work together there can be a tendency to call people out for their shortcomings.  Calling people out usually results in shame and blame.  Calling each other in has a different energy behind it.  It’s the kind of call that matches up with the Spirit of Jesus when he invited folks to Come, follow me.

Today’s gospel reading presents a pretty spot-on framework for what following Jesus has meant for us.

The reading is composed of two stories that Mark puts back to back, held together by the theme of Sabbath.  Held together further by the theme of Jesus pushing up against the boundaries of Sabbath law.  In both cases he is accused of misbehavior.

In the first instance Jesus and his companions are going through a field of grain.  For most of Mark, Jesus is traveling around his home region of Galilee.  It was north of Jerusalem and predominantly rural.  Nobody in Jesus’ group owned this particular grain field.  But the Torah had generous laws about gleaning from other people’s fields.  It instructed land owners to not harvest the edges of their fields and to not go back over their harvested fields a second time.  They were forbidden from maximizing the ratio of grain in the barn to grain left out in the fields.  The land was ultimately the Lord’s, the grain a gift of abundance, and so some of it was to be left for those who didn’t have their own land.  They could come and glean.  It was a social safety net, mandated by law.

This practice is prominent in the biblical story of Ruth.  During harvest season, the foreigner Ruth goes out daily to glean for herself and her mother-in-law Naomi in the fields of Boaz.  She catches Boaz’s eye, makes a few moves herself to show Boaz she’s interested, and the rest is history, including having a great grandson named David who became a king.  Many more greats down the line was Jesus of Nazareth.

In our minds, programmed to uphold the sanctity of private property, Jesus and his followers are trespassing, but they’re perfectly within the legal bounds of Torah, and by gleaning Jesus is channeling the free spirit of his great, great, many greats grandma Ruth.

Where they are pushing the bounds is that this was a Sabbath, a day on which work was prohibited.  There was vigorous debate within the community about what all constituted work.  Harvesting was strictly out, but is this really harvesting?  In his own defense, Jesus cites something that David once did, while he and his companions were hungry.  They went into a shrine and ate some of the holy bread that only the priests were supposed to eat.  The point: satisfying a basic human need supersedes religious restrictions and legal regulations.  This story ends by Jesus delivering a line that summarizes his understanding of this relationship: “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind of the Sabbath” (2:27).

Mark follows this up with a second Sabbath story.  This one takes place in a synagogue.  In the congregation there is a man with a withered hand.  Jesus is being watched closely to see whether he will heal on the Sabbath.  During the sharing of joys and concerns Jesus calls the man forward.  Jesus poses a question to the congregation: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?”  Nobody says anything.  Mark next narrates this: “Jesus looked around at them with anger; he was grieved.”  Jesus tells the man to stretch out his hand, which he does.  Hand restored.  Does anyone else have a joy or concern you’d like to share with the community?

In this story there’s no way Jesus could be accused of doing work on the Sabbath.  He doesn’t even touch the man.  He just tells him to come up front, and to stretch out his hand.  But this might be one of those occasions where Jesus actually does call out his opponents.  They have been publicly shamed.  The story ends with them starting to plot for a way to get rid of Jesus.

It’s important to note that these stories, like many others in the gospels, should not be read as Jesus vs. the Jews, or free-spirited Christianity vs. legalistic Judaism.  Scholars have puzzled over some of these controversies which the gospels seem to blow out of proportion, or to mischaracterize Jesus’ opponents.  Strict and humorless Pharisees certainly make a good foil alongside Jesus.

What’s more helpful is to read these kinds of stories as a clash between different ways of viewing the sacred, and what lies at the core of human conviction – religious and otherwise.  They highlight this painfully common phenomenon of how what some consider to be misbehavior, others consider to be behavior that is faithful, compassionate, even logical, essential.

And here’s where these gospel stories start to jive with the story of CMC over the last five years, and really many more years going back.  Because, depending on your perspective, these five years both opened and are now closing with a significant act of misbehavior on our part.

If you can think back that far, you might remember that toward the end of that first year, this would have been the summer of 2014, we had a process unofficially referred to as “clarifying our welcome.”  This process actually went surprisingly quickly.  In large part because years prior the congregation had an extensive process that resulted in a public affirmation of LGBTQ persons as full members in the congregation.  It included biblical study, insights from science, storytelling, and study of wider church statements.  It was a discussion the congregation had been having for decades.  This made it official in a new way.  Then in 2014 we clarified that not only did this have to do with membership, but that the full spectrum of sexual orientation was a non-factor in regards to the couples we bless for marriage and who we might call to pastoral ministry or church staff.  One of its immediate effects was preparing the way for us to hire the best candidate for the position of Pastor of Christian Formation.  Mark has been sharing his gifts with us ever since.

This feels so normal and matter-of-fact now that we might forget how much this pushed us up against the boundaries of the wider Mennonite Church, and put us outside the clear boundaries of official church statements.  This was a risk.  It’s still technically against church teaching for a Mennonite pastor to officiate at the wedding of a same-sex couple.  The language used to describe such misbehavior is “at variance.”  We are “at variance” with official church statements – which would make for a pretty good two word bumper sticker I’m sure many of you would enthusiastically use.

When you’re “at variance,” reduced to a classification of misbehavior, it’s important to clarify, at least in one’s own mind, why and how the community is actually being faithful, compassionate, logical, essential, acting out of the best of our tradition.  So while certain isolated biblical texts get lobbed against LGBTQ folks, we have looked to stories like these in Mark – where we are confronted with two different ways of viewing the sacred.

One focuses on upholding particular boundaries and restrictions.  And let’s be clear: these boundaries have a profound power to give meaning and order to life.  They offer a world with clean distinctions between the sacred and the profane, the faithful and the unfaithful.  I’m convinced the power of a world with this kind of clarity is one of the biggest reasons many folks hold on to it so tightly.

Another approach is to hold the human being at center.  To watch and listen for what brings about human flourishing.  What brings about healing.  What meets the need for nourishment, regardless of whether this is or isn’t the right day of the week to pluck the grain from the field.  This approach claims that wherever there are laws and restrictions and guidelines, they must always be in the service of human thriving, rather than human thriving being sacrificed on the altar of traditional boundaries.  “The Sabbath was made for humanity,” Jesus says.  “Not humanity for the Sabbath.”  We could add that the thriving of all life is at stake.

This isn’t just an interpretative slide of hand so we can claim that we’re more biblical than others.  It really is an entirely different orientation toward faith – pun intended.

I’ve been reading a long essay by Thomas Merton, the Trappist Monk, and one of the most influential voices of the 20th century.  It’s titled “Christian Humanism” and in that essay he comments on these very stories from Mark’s gospel.  He writes, “In each case, what is of utmost importance is the fact that Jesus, for instance, in working miracles on the sabbath, is emphasizing the priority of human values over conventionally ‘religious’ ones.  In each case, where there is a choice between the good of a suffering human person and the claims of formal and established legalism, Jesus decides for the person and against the claims of legalistic religion.”
(Love and Living, by Thomas Merton, p. 142).

Which leads into our most recent misbehavior / faithful action.

When we said Yes to being a Sanctuary congregation last August, none of us knew what we were getting ourselves into.  If any of you did, you forgot to tell me.  We knew that we had been a part of the sanctuary movement of the 80’s, a story we had just retold the week prior at our 55 year anniversary celebration – having no idea Edith would walk into our lives four days later.  We knew we wanted to live out the message on the signs we put outside our church building: “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.”  “No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”  “No importa de donde eres, estamos contentos que seas nuestro vecino.”  We knew that Mennonites have a rich history of conscientious objection to state policies that violate our understanding of who Jesus calls us to be.  We knew there were times in Mennonite history when we have needed sanctuary, and places like this country extended it to us.  We knew this was a risk.  We knew we were going to have help.

And this was enough.

Aside from a few phone calls early on from concerned Christians citing Romans 13 that we should obey the ruling authorities, this has not been seen as an act of misbehavior by the wider faith community.  We and Edith and her family have been surrounded by support locally.  Our denomination, with whom we are still apparently “at variance” in one way, has affirmed and embraced this calling and told the story in a number of ways.  Like the words of Thomas Merton and the actions of Jesus, this is an instance in which human values take priority.

But this is still held as an act of misbehavior against the policies of the state.  And even though we’ve learned much in the last nine months, we still don’t know what we’ve gotten ourselves into.  And that’s OK.

I don’t mean to present misbehavior as a good for its own sake.  As a parent of young, but not- as- young –as- they- used- to- be children, I have a growing appreciation for healthy rules and boundaries.  They help give shape to our lives.  It just so happens that the shape of some of the rules we’ve encountered in the last few years have been a distortion of what makes for healthy living.

So what started as “expanding our welcome” with LGBTQ folks among us has expanded through some intense antiracism and racial justice work, and into sanctuary.  We’ve done some significant work.

But life is more than work.  Which is why Sabbath was made for humankind.

So that’s what we’re entering now.  I say “We” because my hope is that these next few months can also be a Sabbath time for the congregation.  Not a Sabbath as in ceasing from all work, but a Sabbath as in a time of intentional renewal.

If you’re out wandering about and get hungry, glean some grain for you and companions.  Shed another layer of unhelpful teachings you’ve absorbed over the decades, and bring into better focus the shape of your new life in Christ.  If you’re in need of healing, extend your hand and see what happens.

That’s what I’m hoping to do personally.

I’m grateful for these years of co-laboring with you.  And now I’m grateful for the opportunity to have a Sabbatical to cease from labor.  I wish you a time of renewal.  My intention is to come back rested and renewed, ready to be called in with you to more holy misbehavior in the spirit of Jesus.




Called in, Part I | May 27

Texts: Isaiah 6:1-10, John 3:8

I first heard the phrase “Called in” about two years ago.  It was right here, so hopefully some of you heard it too.  It was during our year-long focus on antiracism and racial justice.  Several of those sermons were in the format of an interview.  I would sit down with someone engaged in this work and do my best Terry Gross or Krista Tippet impression.  This particular Sunday our guest interviewee was Rev. Lane Campbell, one of the pastors at First Unitarian Universalist, just up High Street.  She has been a leader of a group called Showing Up for Racial Justice, SURJ.  Early on in the conversation she mentioned one of the core values of SURJ: “Calling people in, not out.”

It’s a value that acknowledges the difficulty of the work – the courage it takes to confront racism and the many ways our lives have been consciously and unconsciously racialized.  There are opportunities at just about every turn to call people out for their failures and blindness, historical and present day.  For our failures and blindness.

But calling people in.  That’s a different approach.  That’s a different kind of call.  The very phrase feels like it offers a fresh space.  The work is no less difficult and courageous, but now we’re able to enter it in a new way.

Called in.

Sometimes you come across a phrase that won’t quite leave you alone, and this has been one of those for me.

About a year after we first heard it, a year ago, I was pondering what might serve as a good theme for an upcoming Sabbatical – or, to be more specific and honest, what might serve as a good theme for a Sabbatical grant.  This was the phrase that pulled it together: Called In, followed by four concentric circles about where that calling takes place: World, City, Congregation, Self.

As that Sabbatical now rapidly approaches, that idea of being Called In, is back at the forefront, and not just for me.  The worship theme throughout the summer, and into September, will track this theme.  Guest speakers and different voices and artists from CMC will add their own thoughts into the mix.  And it’s a good thing Mark decided to come back once his Sabbatical ended.  He’ll give pastoral leadership throughout the summer.  One of the dangers of letting a pastor go on Sabbatical is they discover how nice it is to have flexible weekends, and suddenly realize why most people aren’t pastors.

So for this Sunday and next, before our family enters the world of flexible weekends, I want to talk about being called in.  Today in more a general way, and next week by doing some reflecting on the past five years of CMC life.  It’s nice that today’s lectionary reading from Isaiah is a call story.

As we do this, let’s cast as wide a net as we can for this notion of “Calling.”  Because it can be a tricky word.  Depending on one’s understanding of God and one’s church background, it can pretty easily evoke an image of God as this being who has this clear and singular plan for your life, and it’s up to you to figure out what that plan is, except that you can’t figure it out because there’s this spiritual deficiency in you that is preventing you from reading the blueprint, and it’s your fault.

This is not what we mean by calling.

Although it does very much have to do with paying attention and a posture of listening.

One of the clearest distillations of calling in the last half century comes from Frederick Buechner, an ordained Presbyterian minister and an author.  It’s quoted quite frequently, maybe you’ve come across it.  Buechner says:

“The place you’re called to be is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

“The place you’re called to be is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

This is a lovely, and actually quite practical way of thinking about calling.  You can map it.  It’s a two circle venn diagram.  School is about to let out for summer, but here the pastor is trying to get you to think about venn diagrams, thus the bulletin cover.  In one circle is everything the world needs: thriving children, healthy water and forests and cities, beauty and the arts, good institutions, less pollution, cross-cultural understanding, transportation, health care…  This can end up being a very large circle.

In the other circle is what gives you personal deep gladness: Making music, developing technologies, creating wealth and meaningful work for others, research, writing, designing, teaching, connecting people.

Where those circles overlap is where your deep gladness and world’s deep hunger meet.  This is the place you’re called to be.  This is the place where you will feel most fulfilled.  It’s not a specific blue print.  It’s a moving target, a range of possibilities.  This is the place into which you are Called In.

Got it?  OK, because now I’m going to contradict that, or at least add another layer.

As lovely a picture this is, it’s quite different than many of the call stories we hear in scripture.  In both the Hebrew and Christian Testaments, the experience of call, rather than being practical, map-able, and glad-making, appears to be anything but.

The call of the prophet Isaiah in chapter 6 of that book is a case in point.

We don’t get a lot of context for this story, except that it happened in the year King Uzziah of Judah died.  This statement might be intended to get us thinking about transitional time, in-between times.  These unique spaces in the unfolding of life and history that are both unstable, and so fruitful for seeing the world in new ways and gaining new direction.  Or, saying “the year King Uzziah died” may just be a way of telling time.  Pegging events to the reign of rulers was common in the ancient world.

Either way, we’re soon plunged into a grand vision, seen by Isaiah and apparently no one else around him.  In this vision Yahweh is sitting on the temple throne, holding court, attended by heavenly creatures who repeat a proclamation of awe and wonder: “Qadosh, Qadosh, Qadosh.  Holy, Holy, Holy, is Yahweh of hosts, the whole earth is full of Yahweh’s glory.”  The scene is complete with smoke and rattling.

Isaiah’s reaction is markedly not one of deep gladness.  Confronted with the overwhelming enormity of Divine presence, he is simultaneously confronted with his own smallness.  “Woe is me,” he says.  “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.”  Isaiah’s calling will soon be revealed as using those very lips to speak to his people.  But like Sarai and Moses and Jeremiah and even Mary the mother of Jesus, Isaiah’s initial response is an immediate recognition of his own inadequacy for the task at hand.

Only after one of the heavenly beings takes a hot coal from the altar and touches it to Isaiah’s lips, is Isaiah able to utter his famous response: “Here am I, send me.”

His mistake is that he agrees to the calling before finding out what he’s actually going to be doing.  After getting a firm Yes, Yahweh reveals the task: “Go and say to this people: Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.”  Yahweh lets Isaiah know that the mind of the people will be made even more dull by his words.  They will stop up their ears and shut their eyes, shut down all their senses to what he’s saying.

It’s as if Isaiah says, “I’m completely unprepared and unable to do this task.”  And Yahweh says, “That’s not a problem at all because you’re going to fail miserably.  Now hop to it.”

In the Bible, calling is never quite something you want to do.

And that’s what qualifies you to do it.  It’s a larger thing that is recruiting you, way larger than personal ego, which is one of the reasons ego reacts so strongly against it.  Even Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane was putting up some resistance, yet ultimately yielding.

Frederick Buechner says: “The place you’re called to be is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

And if we could modify Buechner and apply it to Isaiah, we might get something like: “The place you’re called to be is where what most terrifies you and what seems least likely to succeed meet.”

Try that venn diagram on for size.

Two weeks ago I had lunch with Jessica Shimberg, now Rabbi Shimberg, recently ordained, leader of the Little Minyan Kehila which celebrates their high holy days in this sanctuary.  It was a different topic, but one thing Jessica said was that she felt like one of the key roles of spiritual leaders is to point toward the both/and rather than the either/or.  That sounds right to me.

So I will pass along that piece of rabbinical wisdom to you and suggest that being “Called in” is not a matter of either/or, but is a matter of both/and.

So maybe now we have a four circle venn diagram in which the place you are called to be is where your deep gladness and what most terrifies you and the world’s deep hunger and what is least likely to succeed…meet.  That certainly narrows it down.  Maybe just about everyone is called to be a pastor after all.

I’m not sure who first made the observation, but one of the great risks of the evolutionary advance of consciousness, is that it has produced creatures who have been freed from the confines of instinct.  And we are those creatures.  We have instinctual parts of our brains that can serve us very well for basic survival, but we also have the neurological apparatus to transcend instinct.  We ponder possibilities and alternative futures.  We contemplate the Divine and wonder what holds all this together and what our place might be in it all.

So while other creatures are largely guided by deeply ingrained patterns and genomic programming, we humans quite literally don’t know what we’re doing.  We don’t know what we’re doing.

We live with a freedom that can just as easily produce anxiety as it produces liberation, especially in our contemporary society which places so much emphasis on the self-made individual and less emphasis on inherited wisdom and the guide of tradition.

And so we have this notion of calling.  Healthy individuals, and healthy institutions, including congregations, pay attention to this.  This sense of being beckoned toward something which makes us and those around us more fully alive, more in tune with the larger work of this enormous reality we call God, whose glory fills the whole earth, even when we shut our eyes and ears to it.  Even if our initial reaction is one of fear.  Perhaps especially if our initial reaction is one of fear.

Calling is tricky because it’s always happening.  It’s a never finished project.  Jesus keeps saying “Follow me,” and doesn’t seem interested in standing still.  Like Jesus said to Nicodemus – those attuned to the Spirit are like the wind.  We’re never quite sure it’s going.

And speaking of an unfinished project, I want to continue this next week and look more at the calling of this congregation and what it has looked like over the last while to be part of a collective with a very clear calling to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.  A calling that is clear, yet wide open, with many overlapping circles.